Against all odds Marie Johnson, now a 63 year old grandmother who had been convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy in 1996, had her sentence commuted last month by President Trump. She had already served 21 years of a life sentence. As unlikely as that story is, it is made all the more interesting when we learn that it was primarily at the urging of Kim Kardashian who had become aware of Marie and her unusually heavy sentence. God does work in mysterious ways!
She had been a model prisoner during her incarceration and had come to faith and become an ordained minister during that time. “Only God could have touched Kim K’s heart like that,” Johnson said. “She said she felt a connection when she saw and heard my story.’ “I’m just so thankful for it. It’s a miracle.”
Marie was casually involved in the crime at a difficult time in her life. She freely admitted guilt but, like most people familiar with the case, she felt the life sentence was too heavy-handed, given what her circumstances were at the time and the fact that it was a smaller offence. Three times during the previous administration the Justice Department’s Office of Pardon recommended against clemency when her name was raised.
Going forward, Marie is planning to dedicate her life to prisoner rights and participating in prison reform.
Punishment? Yes. Civilized? Maybe. Justice? Not so much.
About the same time a jury in Florida ruled on the 2014 case where Gregory Hill Jr. was shot and killed by police. The story is admittedly complicated and Mr. Hill does carry significant blame but, ‘The jury awarded $1 for funeral expenses and $1 for each child’s loss. But because the jury found Mascara [police] only 1% responsible, it reduced the award to four cents. And because a toxicology report showed Hill was drunk at the time of the encounter, the Times reported the award would be reduced to nothing.’ (ACLU.org)
Civilized society. Punishment for the crime. Justice done. Wait, one dollar for each child losing their father? One dollar for funeral expenses? I’m sure there is some legal minutia that justifies it but whatever the case this family did not just lose the suit but were diminished by the ruling. Even dehumanized. How else do you interpret one percent of one dollar as compensation? What formula do you even use to figure that? It would have been better for the family if they had simply lost the suit. Let’s be honest, it was punitive, nothing else.
Punishment? Yes. Civilized? No. Justice? Not really.
June was also the time that temperatures rose on the subject of immigrant children (some of them still breastfeeding) being separated from their parents, held and shipped to various locations around the country. The government is showing little ability or interest in reversing the policy they enforced or re-uniting the families.
Punishment? Yes. Civilized? No. Justice? Of course not.
I wrote a blog last week about how we live in a society with performance expectations that infiltrate even how we think about ourselves (‘BE’ https://bertrim.ca/be/). This same principle applies to crime and punishment – we have performance expectations for everyone so we can coexist in our society. We have laws that we expect everyone to follow: from theft to murder to street parking to property lines; where to cross the street, when we can make noise, what to put in our garbage. White collar, blue collar and consumers, we have rules to protect our money, guard our privacy, guarantee our purchases, manipulate our taxes.
Then we ask someone else to enforce the rules on everyone for us – that’s why we have police officers, by-law enforcement officers, security companies, government agencies, judges, jails, and people to administer it all.
Christians have rules about how to think about God (theology) how to practice what we believe (doctrine) and how to participate with other Christians (membership). It has always fascinated me that Christians have more stringent rules than God does; religious denominations have more performance expectations (on paper) than Scripture does. Christians are as likely (perhaps more so) to judge someone based on real or assumed performance expectations.
Laws are fine of course and necessary in a broken, selfish world, but speaking of selfish, how many laws just exist to make us feel better about our goodness? The one thing we like better than rules is punishing people for breaking them. We love avenging movies where something awful has happened to someone innocent and the husband/wife/father/mother/whomever is a retired navy seal who avenges the tragedy by killing the bad guys real good.
In real life we enjoy it when people get caught. Admit it, you like it when rule breakers pay the price. When the neighbour with the tall weeds is ordered to cut them, the cheating husband gets kicked out, the lazy employee fired, those gang members arrested.
But of course the punishment isn’t the whole story. Those people being punished are real people. What about rescuing, restoring, rekindling, rehabilitating? What about the people who are being punished: does it end with punishment; is punishment the end-game in itself? Do we have any responsibility to participate in healing others when our rules are broken? Where do forgiveness and grace enter the story? Or do we even want them to?
Christianity believes that we do have a part to play in helping and healing the broken, the transgressors, the troubled, the sinful. However many of us still worship the idol of punishment. Many of us believe in the payback of punishment and maybe even like it.
Perhaps that’s why Christians like hell; it’s our ultimate ‘win’ when people don’t act like we want them to.
Or maybe, conversely, it’s our doctrine of hell that teaches us to relish punishment so much here on earth.
Agree or disagree? I welcome your comments.
In any case, I’m not finished yet. There’s much more to talk about in our next few posts.